The world’s plastic carbon footprint accounts for 4.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and it’s growing.1
As a substance, plastic can be a life-saving tool (think sterilized stuff for hospitals and methods that prevent food botulism).
But, it’s also pretty tough on the planet, especially when considering its production and the amount of plastic waste that ends up in landfills.
Knowing how much of a carbon footprint plastic generates (the official numbers) and how to calculate it can help you reduce it and find ways to lower the amount of plastic you use…and its impact on the planet.
Calculate Your Plastic Carbon Footprint Here
The following guide outlines the official greenhouse gas emissions associated with plastic and explains how to use a plastic calculator so that you can reduce, reuse, and recycle your plastic carbon footprint to practically zilch.
How To Use a Plastic Carbon Footprint Calculator
Using an online plastic carbon footprint calculator is easy. The calculator will help you determine how much plastic you use throughout the year. You can then commit to reducing your overall plastic use to help control your carbon footprint.
You can calculate your plastic carbon footprint by entering information about the amount of plastic you use, such as the number of plastic bottles and bags, food containers and packaging, water bottles, and even disposable plates and cups.
The calculator also considers the energy costs of producing these products and other items you buy from stores every day.
Fill out the form on the website carefully and honestly.
Once you have done this, you will be able to find ways to reduce your plastic carbon footprint that are simple and effective.
What Is the Carbon Footprint of Plastic?
The carbon footprint of plastic varies depending on the type of plastic and whether it is virgin or recycled. Generally, it takes more energy to produce virgin plastics than recycled plastics because you don’t make them from pre-existing materials.
As a result, virgin plastics have a larger carbon footprint than recycled plastics.
Why Use a Plastic Footprint Calculator?
You may be wondering why it is essential to calculate your plastic carbon footprint. Well, it’s not… but by identifying the amount of plastic you use in your daily life, you can start to make decisions that reduce it, so that the planet can become healthier and more sustainable.
You can estimate your yearly consumption of plastic bags, cups, straws, and wrappers. The calculator will then calculate how many trees it would take to offset the number of carbon emissions caused by your plastic use. You can use this information to cut back on the amount of plastic you use.
Governments can also use the information collected from this calculator to make policies that will help reduce the use of plastics, positively affecting our environment.
How Does Plastic Contribute to Carbon Emissions?
Plastic is ubiquitous in daily life. You probably take it for granted and rarely think about where it comes from or is made.
And that’s a frightening prospect when you consider that 90% of seabirds have already ingested plastic.
Does Plastic Contribute to Carbon Footprint?
The production, usage, and disposal of plastic contribute to carbon emissions.3 When you look at the entire plastics lifecycle, you see that it’s responsible for almost two billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions every year.
The emissions are synonymous with the average carbon footprint per person in the US. The emissions are roughly equivalent to the greenhouse gas emissions from 189 coal power plants in the United States or 650 million cars worldwide.
Plastic is derived from petroleum, a non-renewable resource that you must drill and transport before turning into consumer products. Plastic products frequently aren’t recyclable, so they end up in landfills, emitting methane as they break down — a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide (CO2).
Manufacturing of Plastics
Plastic production is a carbon-intensive process. The process requires you to drill and transport oil and natural gas. The plastic manufacturing process also releases greenhouse gasses directly into the atmosphere.
You will be emitting fewer greenhouse gasses with the less plastic you consume, thereby needing fewer fossil fuels.6
Increased Plastic Use
Plastic single-use products like packaging or bags are only used once before being thrown away.4 These products have a short lifespan, but they will continue to emit greenhouse gasses for hundreds or thousands of years after being tossed in a landfill or left in an ocean. (See how methane gas contributes to warming.)
Every ton of plastic waste in landfills releases about 3 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change.
Effect of Plastic Disposal on the Environment
Several million tons of plastic waste enter the oceans each year — that’s equal to about a garbage truck full of plastics every minute. This waste harms wildlife and kills fish and birds who mistake it for food. Plastic also releases toxic chemicals when incinerated or buried in landfills, seeping into water supplies and causing health problems for humans who ingest them.
How Much CO2 Is Produced From Plastic?
Plastic is a fantastic invention. It’s durable, versatile, and cheap to make. But it has a cost — the CO2 emissions that come with its production. The amount of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions produced by plastics is staggering.
More than 500 million tons of CO2 are produced by plastic annually. This is equivalent to the amount produced worldwide by all passenger cars, motorbikes, planes, and trains combined.
How Are Carbon Emissions Calculated From Plastic?
Plastics have become a valuable yet controversial material. You can use plastic in almost every industry. Plastic is durable and cheap to produce, thus ideal for many applications. However, plastic production has a significant carbon footprint.
An online plastic carbon footprint calculator can deduce the CO2 emissions per kg of plastic. The carbon emissions from plastic are calculated by combining the estimated amount of plastic used with the amount of carbon necessary to produce a kilogram of plastics.
Plastic Carbon Footprint Calculator
You can use an online tool known as a plastic carbon footprint calculator to deduce the carbon emissions of plastic.
This calculator considers the total number of kilograms of plastic used and then multiplies it by the amount of carbon required to produce a kilogram of plastic. The number provided by this calculator is an estimate of the number of carbon emissions from plastic.
You can calculate carbon emissions from plastic by inputting the weight of your plastic product, its base resin, and the process used to manufacture it.
Calculating the Carbon Emissions of Plastic in Each Production Stage
Most carbon emissions from plastic occur during production. The production stage uses several chemicals to create plastic. These chemicals release greenhouse gasses (GHGs) as they are mixed and processed. The amount of GHGs released varies depending on the type of plastic produced.
The most significant contributor to the carbon footprint of plastic is its production.2 This is followed by distribution, then disposal. Most plastics have a relatively small carbon footprint during their raw material extraction and recycling stages.
What Are the Different Types of Plastics?
The term “plastics” encompasses a wide variety of substances and includes materials composed of various elements. Plastics typically have high molecular weight, meaning each molecule can have thousands of atoms bound together.
There are many different types of plastics. You can use plastics in disposable bottles and packaging, others in durable goods that last for years. Each type of plastic has its carbon footprint — the amount of greenhouse gas emissions associated with making and using it.
Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET)
PET is a commonly used plastic for single-use bottled beverages because it is inexpensive, lightweight, unbreakable, and easy to recycle. However, it has a significant drawback — it is difficult to reuse, and most recycled PET ends up downcycled into textiles — and only 1% is recycled into new beverage bottles. Its carbon footprint varies on whether recycled or virgin PET is used.
High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE)
HDPE plastic is the stiff plastic used to make things like milk jugs and plastic bags. HDPE’s carbon footprint is lower compared to that of PET, and it’s commonly recycled. This safe form is simple and cost-effective to recycle HDPE plastic for secondary use. HDPE has good chemical resistance, and you can recycle it into plastic lumber, furniture, and auto parts.
Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)
PVC plastic is commonly used in construction because it is cheap and durable. You can make plumbing pipes using PVC and make them into clothing or upholstery fabric.
The main disadvantage of PVC is that it releases toxic chemicals during its production, use, or disposal process. Another disadvantage of PVC is that you cannot easily recycle it because it contains dangerous additives, including lead and phthalates. PVC can also be highly toxic — it contains chlorine, which releases harmful hydrochloric acid when burned.
Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE)
Low-density polyethylene (LDPE) is the most critical plastic from an environmental perspective. It accounts for about 20% of all plastic produced in Europe and about 30% in North America. About 85% of LDPE is used for film products, both as a single layer or coextruded with other layers such as high-density polyethylene (HDPE).
The carbon footprint of making LDPE film ranges from 2 kg CO2e/kg to 4 kg CO2e/kg. The average value is around 3 kg CO2e/kg. This range depends mainly on the source of electricity used during production, whether renewable energy or coal.
Polypropylene (PP) is a plastic commonly used for producing storage containers, packaging, and automotive components. You can also use it in making carpets, fibers, upholstery, geotextiles, ropes, plastic parts, and reusable containers.
Polystyrene (PS) is another type of plastic commonly used for packaging food containers, bottles, and disposable utensils. You can only recycle it a few times before it loses its strength and becomes unusable. Many PS end up in landfills or get incinerated because you cannot recycle them. Polystyrene products include foam insulation and packaging materials such as egg cartons, meat trays, and disposable cutlery.
Carbon Footprint of Common Plastic Items
The carbon footprint of common plastic items like yogurt containers, drinking bottles, jugs, and takeout containers is in the following table.
|Plastic Item||Approximate Carbon Footprint|
|Plastic drinking bottle||2.54|
|Takeout container (with lid)||2.08|
|Polypropylene injection molding||4.49|
Understanding Global Plastics Production
The global plastics industry has shown tremendous growth over the past two decades, primarily due to its extensive use in various applications. Over 50% of the world’s plastic is produced in Asia, with China responsible for 31 percent in 2020, making it the world’s largest plastic producer and CO2 emissions per kg of plastic.
Carbon emissions of the United States and Europe accounted for 18% and 17%, respectively.
Economic growth, industrialization, and the growth of urban populations primarily drive global plastics production. Between 1964 and 2014, global plastics production increased from 15 million tonnes 1964 to 311 million tons 2014. In 2020, the world’s total annual plastic production was over 380 million metric tons.2
This exponential increase in production can be attributed to the global demand for products made from these materials. The top three industries responsible for plastic usage are packaging (42%), building & construction (19%), and automotive (12%). Global plastic production is expected to continue growing at around 3 percent per year until 2030.
With economic development comes a move toward a service-based economy and a middle class. As earnings improve across populations, they tend to buy more products, which drives up consumption rates. This has increased plastic consumption in emerging markets like China, India, and Brazil.
Rising awareness among consumers about their ecological footprint is causing them to buy products packaged in recyclable materials or reusable containers rather than disposable ones made from non-recyclable materials like plastic bags and bottles.
In recent years, the increasing awareness about the environment and climate change has shifted from conventional products such as metals to lightweight materials such as plastics. This has encouraged manufacturers to develop new recyclable, reusable, and environmentally friendly products.
What Are the Greenhouse Gas Emissions From Plastic Waste?
Plastic has become a ubiquitous element of modern life and contributes significantly to the global economy. However, it does not come without environmental costs. Plastics are made from fossil fuels, which have a sizable carbon footprint. In addition, plastic waste has been linked to greenhouse gas emissions (GHG).
Rising Use of Plastics
The greenhouse gas emissions from the plastic waste rise as plastic consumption grow globally. In 2015, emissions from plastic waste were equal to 1.8 percent of global CO2 emissions from fossil fuels and industry. The amount of emissions depends on whether the plastic is recycled or sent to a landfill or incinerator.5
Plastic production has increased 200-fold since 1950. Most of this material ends up in landfills or the environment as litter, where it breaks down into microplastics that enter oceans, rivers, and lakes. The production of plastic waste releases greenhouse gas emissions into the environment, but so does its disposal. Landfills and incinerators emit more greenhouse gasses than recycling plastic because they release methane gas and carbon dioxide.
Low Levels of Recycling
Only 9% of the more than 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic that has been produced since the early 1950s has been recycled. The vast majority of plastic waste ends up in landfills or the environment. The greenhouse gasses (GHGs) emitted from plastic waste essentially mirror those from fossil fuel production: carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide.
The Greenhouse Gas Footprint of Plastic
Plastic comes with a significant GHG footprint. To produce the amount of plastic the world produced in 2017, an estimated 619 million metric tons of GHG were emitted — about 13 percent of total global emissions. The emissions correspond to more than 125 million passenger vehicles driven for one year or from nearly 870 coal-fired power plants operated for one year.
A significant portion of these emissions are associated with the production of plastic resin and packaging products; however, other types of plastics such as fibers used in clothing contribute to GHG emissions. Quantifying the GHG impact of plastics requires careful analysis that accounts for many variables such as manufacturing methods, material types, and disposal practices.
Plastic waste is responsible for emissions equivalent to 189 million metric tons of CO2 in 2015. That’s about as many as 39 million cars on the road for a year.
Reducing Plastic Use: It’s Possible to Reduce Plastic Footprint
Plastic can be a valuable material, but it can also do quite a bit of damage to the environment. Plastic doesn’t biodegrade so it will remain in landfills for decades or centuries, leaching chemicals into the soil and water. Plastic ends up in rivers, lakes, and oceans, terrible for the environment and human health.
Every day thousands of tons of plastic enter the oceans, polluting the water and killing marine life.7 It’s not just the oceans that are affected by plastics – all environments are affected by plastic pollution. From the homes to the countryside, plastic is affecting every environment.
Changing behaviors is crucial to reducing plastic use. Instead of buying bottled water, consider investing in a reusable water bottle. Instead of using plastic bags from the grocery store, bring your cloth bags with you when you shop. Although these may seem like small changes, they add up over time and make a big difference to the environment.
Reduce Your Plastic Use
The best way to reduce your plastic use is to cut out unnecessary plastic items in your life. Bring your reusable cup, bag, container, and utensils for meals on the go. You can even buy a reusable water bottle and fill it up before leaving home instead of buying bottled water. You should also avoid buying products that come in disposable packagings, such as disposable razors and plastic bags.
You should always recycle any plastics you do use whenever possible. There are recycling centers in many cities where you can drop off plastics to be recycled into other useful products. You should also look for products made from recycled materials whenever possible to continue to be useful instead of ending up in a landfill. It’s best not to burn plastics because they release harmful toxins into the air when burned.
Be an Activist for Common Good
Prevent plastics from entering waterways by picking up litter in your neighborhood and around storm drains. If you live near a beach or river, organize a cleanup event!
You can also participate in carbon offset tree planting campaigns similar to the Amazon rainforest carbon offset program. You can also support businesses that make a conscious effort to reduce their reliance on single-use plastic packaging and waste in general.
Buy in Bulk
Instead of purchasing foods packaged in individual wrappers and containers, buy in bulk from the grocery store or bring your containers from home when you shop at bulk stores.
With offset strategies, you can eliminate the footprint of the plastic you must use. Tree planting programs erase emissions and can be purchased from any of the best carbon offset providers, like the Plastic Bags Carbon Offset.
Each of us carries the power to transform the planet and its inhabitants collectively. It’s not going to be easy or quick, but that doesn’t mean an improvement isn’t within your grasp. First, calculate your eco footprint of plastic, and then with motivation and willingness to take action, you can reduce your plastic carbon footprint.
Frequently Asked Questions About Plastic Carbon Footprint Numbers
What’s the Single-Use Plastic Carbon Footprint?
The carbon footprint of a single-use plastic water bottle is estimated to be between 1.7 and 2.1 kg of CO2 per kilogram of plastic.2 Single-use plastics also have a shorter lifespan, which means they are incinerated or in landfills more often.
What’s the Carbon Footprint of Plastic Bottles?
The carbon footprint of plastic bottles is about 1.9 kg CO2-eq/kg. The footprint is lower than glass bottles because it weighs less, making it cheaper to transport over long distances.
How Much CO2 Is Generated by One Kg of Plastic?
For 1 kilogram (kg) of plastic you use, you emit around 1.7 and 6 kg CO2 per kg of plastic. That’s equivalent to driving a car for 6 kilometers (km).
What’s the Footprint of Recycled Plastic?
Recycled plastic carbon footprint is lower than that of producing plastics. Recycling plastic can reduce emissions by at least 50 percent. That is because much less energy is required to recycle plastic than to make new resin.
1Science Daily. 2 December 2021. Growing carbon footprint for plastics. Science Daily. 6 April, 2022. Web. <https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/12/211202113504.htm>
2Woodly. 26 May, 2021. What is the carbon footprint of plastic? Woodly, 6 April, 2022. Web. <https://woodly.com/carbon_neutrality/what-is-the-carbon-footprint-of-plastic/>
3Cabernard, L., Pfister, S., Oberschelp, C. et al. 2022. Growing environmental footprint of plastics driven by coal combustion. Nat Sustain 5, 139–148. 6 April, 2022. Web. <https://www.nature.com/articles/s41893-021-00807-2>
4Alberts Elizabeth 22 October 2021. Plastics set to overtake coal plants on U.S. carbon emissions, new study shows. Mongabay. 6 April, 2022. Web. <https://news.mongabay.com/2021/10/plastics-set-to-overtake-coal-plants-on-ghg-emissions-new-study-shows/>
5CIEL. 2022. Plastic & Climate: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet. Center for International Environmental Law. 6 April, 2022. Web. <https://www.ciel.org/project-update/plastic-climate-the-hidden-costs-of-a-plastic-planet/>
6Madhumita Paul. 13 December 2021. Plastic production accounts for much larger carbon footprint than previously thought. Down to Earth. 6 April, 2022. Web. <https://www.downtoearth.org.in/news/environment/plastic-production-accounts-for-mmuch-larger-carbon-footprint-than-previously-thought-80651>
7NPR. 9 July, 2019. Plastic Has A Big Carbon Footprint — But That Isn’t The Whole Story. NPR. 6 April. Web. <https://www.npr.org/2019/07/09/735848489/plastic-has-a-big-carbon-footprint-but-that-isnt-the-whole-story>